The last three weeks have been absurd, even surreal, for Marwa Elselehdar. On the day the internet’s favourite cargo ship, Ever Given, got diagonally stuck across Egypt’s Suez Canal for nearly a week, it launched thousands of viral memes, conspiracy theories, and rumours.
Elselehdar, who is Egypt’s first woman sea captain, found herself in a vortex of a vicious disinformation campaign that falsely blamed her for piloting Ever Given—the largest container ship in the world, which is nearly a quarter-mile long—and “crashing” it into the Suez Canal.
“From what I saw, the fake posts came up within hours of Ever Given getting stuck,” Elselehdar told VICE World News from Cairo. “In fact, I was hundreds of miles away in Alexandria aboard the AIDA IV ship, and my friends alerted me to the viral posts.”
“I don’t know who these trolls are or why they did it. But they kept saying it was my mistake, that I am to be blamed for everything that happened,” she said. “The trolling just showed that they don’t accept women in this industry even though the few of us who are in this line are very professional and good at our work.”
On March 24, Elselehdar posted a video on her Instagram to dispel the rumours. “I decided to own this conversation and use it to send out a supportive message for all the women out there, and not just those in the marine industry,” she said. An International Maritime Organization data states that women represent only two percent of the world’s 1.2 million seafarers. Of them, 94 percent work in the cruise industry.
“I want to show that women can do anything,” she added. “We’re not perfect, but this wasn’t my fault. I’m fighting for myself and my reputation.”
Some Egyptian media called the campaign against Elselehdar “anti-feminist”. The disinformation, which catapulted Elselehdar as the unlikely villain of the Suez Canal jam, started with a doctored headline of a March 22 Arab News article that originally profiled her for being Egypt’s first woman ship captain. The fake news changed the headline to, “Cargo ship crashes into Suez Canal. First female Arab Lloyd captain involved in the incident.”
Then a fake Twitter account on her name cropped up, which amassed a “significant” following after the user tweeted the fake post.
The 30-year-old didn’t have a Twitter account at that point. By the time she created a new account to clarify the truth, the fake news was riding high on the virality around Ever Given. It also launched thousands of responses, including some that invoked the myth of women being bad drivers.
“In Egypt, news usually spreads like perfume,” said Elselehdar. “Plus since the fake post was in English, it reached so many countries that it’s hard to even track where all it’s spread. The posts were so harsh that I initially decided not to do anything about them. I’m glad I changed my mind.”
Elselehdar has had many firsts in her field, where she has worked for 10 years. She was the first and only woman to study in her department of 1,200 students at Egypt’s pioneering maritime college. “People in my department were surprised because I was the only girl there,” she said. “But instead of being intimidated, I worked hard because I looked at it as a rare opportunity.”
Elselehdar did, in fact, sail through the Suez Canal. “But just not on Ever Given, and definitely not this year,” she said. “It was way back in 2015 when I joined the crew of the AIDA IV ship as a second officer.” In doing so, Elselehdar became the first—and youngest—Egyptian female captain to navigate the newly expanded Suez Canal.
In 2017, she was honoured by Egyptian president Fattah El-Sisi on International Women’s Day.
Despite the barrage of sexism on her social media over the last few weeks, Elselehdar said Egypt has many female idols whom she looks up to, who have inspired her to look ahead. “I’ve honestly never seen that much targeting of women around me,” she said. “But this attitude exists across the world, whether you’re in Egypt or the U.S.”
She also said that after the disinformation, she received many supportive emails and DMs. “There wasn’t a single woman who wasn’t supportive throughout my ordeal. They were from different countries and we just started communicating,” she said. “It made me very happy and made me forget my situation.”
Elselehdar also got sucked into bizarre QAnon conspiracy theories around Ever Given, that claimed the ship was operated by Hillary Clinton and carried a cargo of child sex slaves. In that, the falsehoods about Elselehdar mounted, one claimed that she looks a lot like Monica Lewinsky. Elselehdar is oblivious to QAnon. “I haven’t seen it but [the comparison with Lewinsky] sounds hilarious,” she laughed.
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